An article in this week’s Weekend Magazine looks at how Vermont farmers work through the winter months. Bottom line: They are just as busy in winter as they are in summer; the challenges are just a bit different.

As Vermonters, we take great pride in our deep agricultural roots. Just look at groups like 4-H that still have solid representation in Vermont. The University of Vermont, and several other Vermont colleges, still teach farming and sustainability. And at the Big E each year, Vermont is a showcase among the New England states.

We have much to be proud of.

As the legislative session kicked off, representatives of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network and staff at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund presented the 2018 Farm to Plate Annual Report to the Vermont Legislature’s House and Senate agriculture committees. In part, the report is the precursor to a request for reauthorized funding for the farm-to-plate food system plan beyond 2020.

For certain, the local-food economy is growing.

According to the report, the state has seen significant economic growth and development in Vermont’s food system since 2010:

— Economic development: Purchases of local food products in Vermont have increased by $176 million to $289 million in total (12.9 percent of total food and beverage sales).

— New jobs: Vermont’s farm-and-food economic sector employs more than 64,174 Vermonters, with 6,559 net new jobs and 742 net new businesses created.

— Food access: The percentage of Vermont households that are food insecure has dropped from 13.2 percent to 9.8 percent in 2017, and charitable food and food access organizations have significantly improved availability of local food for Vermonters.

“The relationships built within the Farm to Plate Network have been priceless,” said Jennifer Colby, Farm to Plate Network Product and Processing Working Group chairperson and UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture Pasture Program coordinator. “The strong foundation of using data to determine where we have come from, the coordination that has allowed us to connect with others doing aligned work now, and the action of bringing unlikely — but natural — partners together has energized our state to spring forward. Without Farm to Plate, we could never have accomplished what we have in the past eight years.”

Additionally, the report, “A 2018 Exploration of the Future of Vermont Agriculture: Ideas to Seed a Conversation and a Call to Action,” identifies Farm to Plate as “a logical vehicle for carrying out the exploration and development of new strategies and ideas.”

“What Farm to Plate can bring to the table is non-comparable to a state agency, and there is value to not being inside state government,” stated Alyson Eastman, deputy secretary, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, in a news release. “Farm to Plate has more than demonstrated the importance of networking, and within their work has taught the importance of working across sectors. There is no time like the present to continue the work of Farm to Plate, especially with the topics of business viability, marketability, climate change and ecosystem benefits at the forefront.”

It is a growing sector, one that hearkens back to Vermont traditions and plays upon one of its enduring assets. It is worth exploring.

Signed into law by the Vermont Legislature in 2009, the creation of Vermont’s Farm to Plate food system plan calls for increased economic development in Vermont’s farm and food sector, new jobs in the farm and food economy, and improved access to healthy local food for all Vermonters. Implementation of Vermont’s 10-year food system plan began in 2011 by the Farm to Plate Network — more than 350 nonprofits, businesses and government officials all working together to reach the goals of the plan.

In order to overcome the state’s economic challenges, we need to invest in this kind of singular focus. We need to come up with answers that further grow that economic engine. And we need to sustain the investment in this system. It would be foolhardy to let hundreds of years of expertise, at the dawn of technological advances, slip away.

This is a true investment in our state’s future. It should have our full support.

You can read the report at bit.ly/2018F2PAnnualReport

In addition, you can read the report on the future of agriculture in Vermont at http://bit.ly/FutureofVTAg

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